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KU has star on the rise in Embiid

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, at 7:48 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, May 9, 2014, at 8:58 a.m.

No. 13 Kansas at No. 19 Florida

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday

Where: O‘Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.

Records: KU 6-2, UF 6-2

Radio: KFH 1240-AM, 98.7-FM

TV: ESPN

No. 13 Kansas at No. 19 Florida

PKansasHt.Yr. PtsRbs
FTarik Black6-9Sr.3.52.8
FPerry Ellis6-8So.14.55.5
GAndrew Wiggins6-8Fr.15.36.8
GWayne Selden6-5Fr.9.13.1
GFrank Mason5-11Fr.9.13.2-x
PFloridaHt.Yr.Pts.Rbs.
FWill Yeguete6-8Sr.5.14.8
FCasey Prather6-6Sr.19.15.9
CPatric Young6-9Sr.10.35.3
GScottie Wilbekin6-2Sr.11.35.7-x
GMichael Frazier II6-5So.13.53.5

x-assists

Kansas (6-2): After losing at the buzzer at Colorado, the Jayhawks head to Florida looking for their first true road victory of the season. Kansas is expected to start three freshmen and a sophomore for the second straight game after freshman point guard Frank Mason replaced junior Naadir Tharpe in the starting lineup at Colorado. Mason had 11 points on three-of-nine shooting, and he continues to struggle from the outside, shooting just 15.8 percent from three-point range. Senior forward Tarik Black, selected the preseason Big 12 newcomer of the year, is also looking for more production. Black is averaging just 3.5 points while being limited to 11.5 minutes per game because of foul issues. In 89 minutes this season, Black has 23 fouls.

Florida (6-2): Just like Kansas, the Gators also lost on a buzzer-beater in their last game, falling 65-64 at Connecticut on a jumper from Huskies guard Shabazz Napier. That was Dec. 2, and Florida, which has also lost at Wisconsin, had a full week to rest and get healthy. Senior floor general Scottie Wilbekin, who injured his ankle against Connecticut, and freshman guard Kasey Hill (ankle) should both be back against KU. Florida is 1-3 all-time against Kansas, with the only victory coming on Nov. 29, 2002, in the preseason NIT in New York. The most recent matchup came on Nov. 25, 2006, in Las Vegas, when Julian Wright and Brandon Rush helped KU knock off the defending national champions.

— On a green patch of grass outside The Rock School, a small Christian academy on the west side of town, a group of international students used to gather to play soccer.

There were two Europeans, and four Africans, and a seventh kid, a 7-foot behemoth from Yaounde, Cameroon, who went by the name of JoJo. To anyone who watched Joel Embiid during those pickup soccer games, there was something that seemed to defy physics. He was blessed with the height of an NBA center, and the wingspan of a pterodactyl, but when the soccer games began on the playground, Embiid wanted the ball at his feet.

“I should have been a goalkeeper,” Embiid said, smiling. “but I was a midfielder.”

He had come to America to pursue the sport of basketball, an avenue toward a better education and a greater opportunity. But Embiid still had love for the game of his youth, the one he used to play back home. Fortunately for Embiid, the basketball program at the Rock School was filled with international kids. And in gym class, soccer was the sport of choice. So when the ball starting bouncing around the pitch, and Embiid would pull off some smooth pirouette or rifle a shot on goal, the gym teachers used to stop and watch.

“It was all these 6-foot-7 and 6-8 guys playing soccer,” said Justin Harden, basketball coach at The Rock School. “And then there was JoJo. I used to joke with people, but it’s almost a serious statement. I would take those guys and you could have beat a lot of high school soccer teams in the country, just because they were that skilled.”

One year later, Embiid is still challenging the accepted relationship between sheer size and athleticism, but these days, he’s mostly doing it on the basketball court. He is a freshman center at Kansas, averaging 9.3 points and 6.6 rebounds while coming off the bench for the 13th-ranked Jayhawks. He is playing just his third full year of organized basketball, but in seven months, he could potentially grow into the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft — if teammate Andrew Wiggins doesn’t already have dibs.

Kansas coach Bill Self compares Embiid to a young Hakeem Olajuwon, another African center who grew up playing soccer, and Embiid appears to improve a little more each day. Monday, as Kansas prepared to face No. 19 Florida on Tuesday night, Embiid returned to Gainesville, where he spent his last full year of high school and where he continued his startlingly quick transformation from African dreamer to potential star.

“It’s just like Hakeem,” Harden said. “He grew up playing soccer.”

The story goes that Embiid was discovered at a basketball camp back home in Cameroon. It was the summer of 2011, and former UCLA forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was holding a camp for young African players. Mbah a Moute, now with the Minnesota Timberwolves, saw this long-limbed kid running up and down the floor, and he knew that kid had to go to America, because that's where all the great ones went.

This is all true, Embiid said, but he actually first touched a basketball when he was 12. He grew up playing volleyball and soccer in Yaounde, a city of 1.8 million in central Cameroon. His father, Thomas, a military man, had spent years playing team handball, and he wasn’t sure basketball held a future for his young son.

“I played basketball when I was young,” Thomas Embiid said. “But it was 30 years (ago). But myself, I was a handball player.”

A few months later, Mbah a Moute placed Embiid at Montverde Academy in Montverde, Fla., one of the top high school programs in the country and the same school he had attended. When Embiid arrived, he was fluent in multiple languages, including French. But English was not one of them.

“I was alone,” Embiid said. “It was tough. But when I got to Montverde in Florida, there were at least four Cameroonians there, so it was easy for me to learn English and get to know everybody.”

Embiid continued to improve on the court, but he hardly played in games. Montverde had Dakari Johnson, a fellow 7-footer who earned McDonald’s All-American honors and signed with Kentucky. And Embiid was playing just his first year of organized ball.

“He was still a little bit raw,” said Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier, who was a senior at Montverde that season. “But you could see that he was going to get a lot better.”

The next summer, with Division I programs beginning to learn of the 7-footer on Montverde’s bench, Mbah a Moute made another call — this time to Harden at the Rock School. Mbah a Moute told Harden that he had a 7-footer from Montverde, a kid that needed a school where he could get on the floor.

Harden had never seen Embiid play, but he said yes. Then he went to his computer, hoping to learn a little something about his new center.

“YouTube is wonderful,” Harden said. “I watched a couple of his hoops mixtapes, but it really only showed him dunking.”

A few months later, Harden realized why. Embiid was still learning the game, but dunking wouldn’t be a problem.

When Embiid wasn’t playing soccer at The Rock School, he spent his time making life miserable for the other kids in gym class. On dodge ball days, that meant pegging kids with what felt like a major-league fastball. On the days they played volleyball, Embiid showed why his father once thought Joel’s future would be on the volleyball court.

“We would play volleyball every once in a while,” Harden said, “and he would almost kill some people with some of his spikes at the net.”

In his first season at Kansas, the skills have translated. After Embiid recorded just one block in KU’s first two games, Self culled together a highlight tape of former KU center Jeff Withey and gave Embiid a simple message: He needed a rim-protector.

In KU’s next five games, Embiid averaged three blocks per contest.

“His ceiling is so high,” Self said, “and he’s a sponge.”

Embiid is still learning, and the same could be said of the Jayhawks. Two losses in three games will leave a young team looking for answers. But after eight college games, Embiid’s growth continues to accelerate, perhaps faster than anyone thought possible.

“A surprise,” said Thomas Embiid, the father that stands just a shade over 6 feet tall. “A good surprise.”

Reach Rustin Dodd at rdodd@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.

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